How 'Conscientious Carnivores' Ignore Meat's True Origins

Supporting small farms without addressing the pain of the slaughter perpetuates desensitization—just as factory farms do

If there's one phrase I'd like to put to pasture it's the increasingly popular designation of "conscientious carnivore." As with so many other expressions in the food movement's growing lexicon of culinary virtue, this one euphemistically masks a harsh reality with a soothing, but ultimately damaging, rationalization.

The rationalization is that because factory farming is so horrifically brutal to animals, the conscientious carnivore can vote with his or her fork by purchasing meat from farmers who raise their animals in a more "humane" manner—free-range pork, grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, and all that. The reality, however, is that the so-called conscientious consumers who support these alternative systems are doing very little to challenge the essence of factory farming. In fact, they may be strengthening its very foundation.

I don't mean to discount the benefits that a farm animal experiences when allowed to move about with relative freedom, eat a natural diet, socialize, and care for offspring. And indeed, there's no denying that if our conceptualization of alternative systems stops right here—that is, with a relative comparison to the hellhole of a factory farm—then carnivores who opt for meat produced through alternative methods are certainly acting in a more conscientious manner.

But that's not saying much. Broaden your perspective on the concept of "conscientious carnivorism" and it becomes clear than it's little more than a catchy justification that helps consumers avoid investigating the deeper implications of nurturing an animal to kill it for food we don't need. It's so much easier, after all, just to focus exclusively on the relative happiness farm animals experience while alive rather than to contemplate the entirety of the animal's life cycle. Narrowing our moral vision this way, something every "conscientious consumer" inevitably does, obscures several aspects of "conscientious" meat eating that deserve due consideration. Three stand out.

First, how do conscientious consumers reconcile their rationale for avoiding factory farming with their willingness to tolerate the slaughter of a sentient animal? Logically speaking, it makes no sense. Supporters of alternative meat base their advocacy on the belief that an animal should never be subjected to the pain and suffering endemic to a factory farm. This kernel of compassion is critical. It confirms the fact that conscientious carnivores know full well that an animal has intrinsic value as a living, breathing, and feeling organism. That's precisely why they want it freed from the factory farm in the first place. Nonetheless, despite the evident presence of this compassion, the conscientious carnivore supports killing that animal for a reason as arbitrary as, for example, some fancy restaurant in Manhattan deciding it's time for the animal to die because pork bellies are all the rage. How can this sentiment (concern for animal welfare) and this act (killing the animal) coexist? To this question, there is no compassionate answer.

Second, there's economics. What if we all did "the right thing" and became "conscientious carnivores"? That is, what if enough consumers placed enough demand on humanely raised meat so that producers had to multiply and expand their "humane" operations to meet growing demand? Currently, about 1 percent of all the meat we eat comes from alternative systems. What if the situation was reversed, and only 1 percent of meat was factory farmed?

Presumably, this is exactly what advocates of small-scale animal farming want. But it's hard to imagine how the proliferation of free-range alternative farms, all of which would be competing with each other on some level to meet demand, could possibly avoid cutting corners to achieve efficiencies of production. This ineluctable quest for efficiency would be fine if we were talking about gadgets. But we're not. We're talking about humans owning and exploiting sentient beings—beings with a foremost interest in staying alive—in order to make a profit.

In this respect, alternative systems might look innocuous at 1 percent, but at 10, 20, 30 percent basic business history dictates that expansion in scale and scope will lead the industry to assume aspects of the factory farming system it originally intended to replace. When you have people owning, raising, and killing animals to meet growing demand, does anyone really believe that animals are going to be given primary consideration? Do we truly think that a farmer whose livelihood depends on owning and killing animals is, in the face of economic competition, going to sacrifice market share to a competitor for the sake of his animals (who are going to be turned into meat anyway)? Within the confines of free-market capitalism, selling animals for food will always entail unnecessary suffering. It goes without saying that there would be nothing conscientious about this inevitable downward cycle of economic efficiency, animal exploitation, and market capitalization.

Finally, if conscientious producers and consumers put their money where their mouth is and get closer to where our food comes from, they'll confront the act of killing an animal. And as they do so, as more and more consumers get closer to the slaughter, they'll have no choice but to call into question the justice of commodifying emotionally aware animals. Last year an online article for Food and Wine interviewed chefs who, in an (admirable) effort to shorten the supply chain and connect with the food they served, slaughtered their own animals. Here is what one of them had to say:

I first harvested an animal—an adult goat and two kids—eight years ago . . . It's a whole mix of emotions—fear, hate, joy, awe—all the big ones. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, holding this baby goat in my arms and petting him until he died, trying to make him comfortable. Did I cry? Yes. Do I cry every time I harvest animals? Yes. I cry every time I talk about it.

It's poignant testimony, and I respect the chef for his openness. The fact that this chef has since gone on to kill many animals and start two successful restaurants that serve every part of those animals to "conscientious carnivores" is unfortunate. But the gut-level emotionalism of his first slaughter should not be downplayed, for it highlights not only the overall quest to get closer to the means of meat production, but it pinpoints the precise reason why we ultimately will not be able to create a reformed food system while continuing to kill animals for pleasure and profit. In essence, it reminds us that killing animals for food we don't need is bloodsport.

The emotional pain the chef experienced was real. The fact that he's gone on to rationalize the experience as a hard knock of economic life—something no doubt assuaged by his usage of euphemisms such as "harvest"—does not make him a conscientious carnivore. It makes him a desensitized one. This guy went to the brink of true change, experienced the rawness of his reaction, and instead of taking a leap, backed away.

As more and more "conscientious carnivores" do what their designation dictates and, as did our chef, move closer to confronting the ethics of slaughter, they'll be similarly jarred into recognizing the gravity of killing a live animal. They'll witness firsthand the fact that the animal does not want to die. And in so doing, they will either have to acknowledge the easy way out of the carnivore's dilemma (choosing not to kill animals for food) or they will have to, a la the chef, desensitize themselves to the slaughter, thereby undermining the conscientious part of "conscientious carnivore."

All these problems with conscientious carnivorism—the killing of an animal despite acknowledging its moral worth, the economics of efficient production, and the desensitization required to deal with the slaughter—end up collectively supporting the very foundation of factory farming. As long as we're willing to commodify a living creature that has intrinsic worth, directly link its lifespan to consumer demand, and numb ourselves to the painful essence of the slaughter, we're doing nothing more than reaffirming the core values of factory farming. It might feel good to call ourselves "conscientious carnivores," but at some point we'll have to recognize that the only conscientious carnivore is, alas, an herbivore.

Image: Sophie H Powell/flickr